Where does the word skyscraper come from? The posh word for researching the origins of a word is etymology. And that is what we’ll be discussing in this article.
Before the skyscraper was applied to building, basically many things that stood out, not only literally but more so relatively, could be called a skyscraper. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary:
“Before skyscraper was used for buildings with an exciting height, the word was already in use for things sticking into the air, such as a triangular sky-sail (first recorded use in 1794), a high-standing horse (1788), a very tall man (1857), a rider on one of the very high cycles formerly in use (1892) or an tall hat or bonnet, (1800).”
As a word for a very tall man, Gerard Peet points out that the Italian word grattacielo, meaning: scraping the sky and the modern day Italian word for a skyscraper, was in use since the early 13th century and suggested that as a loan-translation from Italian, it made it’s way into the English language.
Interestingly, the top hat denotation is also relevant in the skyscraper height measuring debate. As the top hat also serves to make a man look taller, and hence more important, one might argue spires do the same for buildings and as such ought not to be added to height, just like top hats don’t add physical height to man.
A band of gentlemen wearing top hats. A skyline avant la lettre? • source: The Band at Scarborough Spa
Skyscraper is, off course, a contraction of the word sky and scraper. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the origin of the verb to scrape back to the Old Norse skrapa, meaning to scrape, erase. In this day and age, to scrape means applying pressure on something using a tool. Presumably, scraper was considered a suffix for objects that proverbially scraped the sky, simply by sticking out.
A new kind of building
Sources seem to only roughly agree on when the word was used in writing for the first time. Some sources mention the term sky buildings for the new tall steel-skeleton buildings. The oldest confirmed reference in print referring to existing buildings might be one that was found by Dutch skyscraper researcher Gerard Peet:
The Chicago Daily was one of the those newspapers. On February 25, 1883, its regular feature, New York Gossip, contained and article about architecture in New York titles “The High-building Craze”. The subtitle was: “Our skyscrapers”
It’s very well possible that the first tall Chicago buildings were inspired by similar buildings in New York, as the latter appears to have had the most 10+ story buildings in the 1880’s. However, sources of first usage of the word all point to Chicago based media. They called it first, literally. One might argue if Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper as a building type, it sure can be considered as the birthplace of the name. Also, Chicago architects have played a essential role in the developments of a skyscraper style, as they continue to design the world’s tallest buildings today.
As an undocumented word, it might have been in use for tall buildings before the 1880’s. As newspapers typically employ people who are creative with words, most likely it was formalized by a journalist who was aware of the word being used for tall related matters, or maybe just picked it up on the street and figured it might a word that would stick. If that was indeed the case, then this fellow sure was right.